White House event kicks off Fil-Am History Month

By Nimfa U. Rueda

Melissa Ramoso, deputy district director for California State Senator Ted W. Lieu and former state chair of the California Democratic Party, chats with musician Apl.de.Ap during a break at the White House event. (courtesy of Melissa Ramoso)

Melissa Ramoso, deputy district director for California State Senator Ted W. Lieu and former state chair of the California Democratic Party, chats with musician Apl.de.Ap during a break at the White House event.
(courtesy of Melissa Ramoso)

LOS ANGELES – President Obama this week honored Filipino-Americans who “helped build and defend” the United States at the first ever celebration of Filipino-American History Month at the White House.

In a message that was read before some 200 Fil-Am elected officials and community leaders attending the event in Washington DC, Obama acknowledged the contributions of thousands of Fil-Ams who fought for the US in World War II.

He also recognized the Fil-Ams who led the fight for better conditions and wages for Filipino and Mexican farmworkers in Delano, California in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The three-hour event, hosted by The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) and the White House Office of Public Engagement, was streamed live.

Nani Coloretti, the highest ranking Fil-Am in the Obama administration, was the keynote speaker.

Fil Am History Month 2015

Fil Am History Month 2015

“You know, it’s a good indicator that you’ve arrived when you don’t only have your own month but that the White House is saying they want to celebrate it too,” said Coloretti, deputy secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Coloretti credited her Filipino grandfather, who was a labor organizer in Hawaii, for inspiring her commitment to public service.

Game changers

“Fifty years ago, courageous farmworkers in Delano helped bring about progress that would forever change the labor movement, both within the Filipino-American community and for our community as a whole,” Obama said in his message.

It was the first time a US president publicly acknowledged the role of the Fil-Am farmworkers led by labor leader Larry Itliong, whose contributions to the farm labor movement have been overlooked in US history.

White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford looks amused as comedian Jokoy kisses Apl de Ap during a light moment at the very first White House celebration of Fil-Am History Month. Photo: Bing Branigin

White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford looks amused as comedian Jokoy kisses Apl de Ap during a light moment at the very first White House celebration of Fil-Am History Month. Photo: Bing Branigin

Many Fil-Ams welcomed Obama’s statement. “It certainly establishes Filipino-Americans as game-changers in the American Labor movement, a fact we have been aware of since their pioneering victories in Hawaii, Seattle and Stockton decades before,” LA-based artist and community activist Eliseo Art Silva said.

“(Obama) has acknowledged that Filipino-Americans have added a major chapter in the American story and has indeed arrived as dynamic and dignified Americans and no longer the Little Brown Brothers of the past.”

Community leader Melissa Ramoso, who attended the event, said the inaugural celebration of Fil-Am History Month at the White House “recognized and celebrated our successes, but also reminded us that we should be furthering our community’s potential especially in positions of leadership.

Recognizing the Fil-Am WWII veterans, Obama said: “Seventy years ago, the United States and our allies overcame forces of tyranny and oppression that threatened not only the Pacific but the entire world – a victory made possible in part by thousands of Filipino-Americans who fought for our nation but who for far too long were denied the compensation they had earned.”

“This month, we honor the Filipino-Americans who have worked to build and defend our country, and we reflect on the moments that have changed the course of the American story,” he added.

Serving as panelists at the event were White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, musician Apl.de.ap, transgender singer Cassandra “Cassie” Ventura, model Geena Ricero, comedian Jo Koy and Pixar Animation Studios Co-director Ronnie del Carmen. Billy Dec, presidential adviser on AAPIs, served as the moderator.

Jason Tengco, deputy director for the White House Initiative on AAPIs, and Mel Orpilla, national president of the Filipino American National Historical Society, delivered the welcome remarks.

The event, which kicked off nationwide celebration of Fil-Am History Month, featured performances by Apl.de.ap, Jessica Reynoso, The Filharmonic and the Pilipino American Cultural Arts Society.

The US Congress passed a resolution in 2009 officially recognizing October as Filipino American History Month.

Various events have been scheduled throughout the US to celebrate the occasion. Also this month, California will observe for the first time a Larry Itliong Day to honor the legacy of the Fil-Am labor leader.  Last July, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 7 proclaiming the commemorative day on Oct 25, Itliong’s birthday.